For Russia, Syria Is a Proving Ground for High-Tech Weapons
Moscow is not alone in sending unproven weaponry to war
by PAUL IDDON
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top commander in Europe, recently slammed the Russian military campaign in Syria, branding it a “live-fire training opportunity” for Moscow that shows clear “disregard for civilian casualties.”
Hodges statement coincided with the Russia’s confirmation that its troops had indeed fired more than 150 weapons from its arsenal in combat.
“During the operation in Syria, 162 advanced and upgraded weapons have been tested in combat,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on Dec. 22, 2016. “They have proven to be highly efficient.”
Shoigu added that the operations revealed flaws in 10 systems that were not apparent on test ranges. Aside from that, the Russian military establishment, according to his assessment, was happy with the performance of its weapons in the field.
The Russian military has never denied claims such as Hodges and has actually been quick to highlight them itself. The Kremlin’s campaign “was a more effective training for the country’s military than drills,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said following Moscow’s faux withdrawal from Syria in mid-March 2016.
More importantly, in Syria, Moscow is simply following a long-standing trend.
Since the Russian campaign in Syria began on Sep. 30, 2015, the Russian state-controlled press has showcased various new weapon systems, many of which had never been used in combat. Photogenic Su-34 Fullback jet fighter bombers illuminated the pages of RT, Sputnik and TASS.
Videos of Kalibr sea-launched and Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles, ostensibly launched against terrorists in Syria from hundreds of miles away, became a major talking point. One Israeli officer observing the situation said Syria had become a military “laboratory” where foreign armies have tested out their new gear in a real combat zone.
“You can check weapon systems. You can check doctrines,” the officer said. The Russians in particular have tried “everything they have,” he added.
Aside from their Kalibrs and Fullbacks, the Russians used the Syrian war as an opportunity to deploy its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The ship embarrassingly lost two of its fighter bombers in landing accidents.
On some occasions long range Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers, which Russian crews never flew in combat before, launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria. These missions demonstrated the plane’s reach and endurance.
Historically Russia’s activities in Syria are reminiscent of what Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy, did in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. When the Nazis backed the Nationalists, they saw a perfect opportunity to test out new military gear in an actual war zone.
Most notable were the Luftwaffe’s new Junker, Heinkel and Messerchmitt fighters and bombers in the Condor Legion. Fascist Italy also sent in its own aerial expeditionary force known as the Legionary Air Force.
Notorious for its wholesale destruction of urban areas while targeting opponents, the Condor Legion became historically infamous for bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937. At the time, local authorities claimed the attacks killed more than 1,600 civilians, though later estimates put the death toll between 400 and 800.
Of course, while apt, this comparison is very general. Militaries around the world recognize that actual combat is a definitive way to assess their capabilities, or lack thereof.
U.S. military support for Israel over the course of nearly four decades allowed Washington to see how well its hardware fared against Soviet gear, supplied to Israel’s Arab adversaries, in real combat scenarios. During Operation Mole Cricket 19 in the summer of 1982, Israeli F-15 and F-16s demonstrated their worth when they shot down more than 80 Syrian warplanes over Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley with zero losses.
American-made F-4 Phantom II’s made this possible with strikes that took out the Soviet-supplied Syrian surface-to-air missiles dotted across the hills of that barren region. Mole Cricket 19 demonstrably proved that western air power could successfully destroy a Soviet-style air defense network with few losses.
Subsequent Israeli operations in Lebanon — and the three wars in Gaza — were also live fire testing grounds for American-made weapons.
The 1991 Persian Gulf War was the first major post-Vietnam U.S. military campaign and proved a good opportunity to test out doctrine and weapons against another adversary laden with Soviet hardware. While the Pentagon had amassed an enormously powerful and technologically advanced military during the Reagan-era build-up, confidence in its ability to win a quick and swift victory against a quantitatively large conventional adversary was nonetheless still in doubt.
“Our press had been telling us that our generals couldn’t general, that our technology didn’t work and our young people were no good,” Charles Horner, commander of the U.S. Ninth Air Force during the Gulf War, later recalled in an interview with PBS. “Now we didn’t believe it, but we worried about it, because it was sort of imbued in our whole national psyche — Vietnam was a ghost we carried with us.”
“A conflict with Iraq promised to put the late-Cold War U.S. doctrine of quality over quantity to the ultimate test,” noted analyst Michael Knights wrote in Cradle of Conflict.
In the end it did, and the U.S.-led coalition decimated Iraq’s conventional forces on the battlefield. The conflict proved to be a rich environment for the U.S. to determine if its personnel and weapon systems — from Tomahawk missiles to radar-evading F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers — stood the ultimate test posed by actual combat.
Since 2015, Moscow has been doing the same with its aircraft, missiles and ships in and around Syria. The Russian military might ultimately draw a number of lessons from this real life “training.”